In Pretoria it was an important day on the racing-pigeon calendar. Two days previously, hundreds of pigeons had been dispatched by train to the distant Karoo hamlet of Fraserburg, known today as Leeu-Gamka. They were to be released that morning at 7am for the first long-distance race of the season. Of all the races of the year, it was the one that would be the extreme test not only of endurance, but also of speed. I was still a schoolboy at the time and among the birds released was one of my pigeons. She was a beautiful, strongly-built year-old female and I expected her to do well. She had no name, I simply called her 6646, which was the number on the ring around her leg. Though a slight wind blew in from the south, there was little chance of any bird making it back on the first day, as they had been released for a straight, 1 000km flight from Pretoria. With a normal flight speed of around 80km/h, the frontrunners would at nightfall probably still be at least a 100km or more from home.
Instead of sitting around the house all day I decided to spend it in the veld, catching snakes and hunting doves. W hen the wind picked up in the afternoon I got worried. At around 3pm I went to check that everything was okay at the loft – I got the shock of my life. On her usual perch, with a full crop and still wet from a refreshing bath, sat 6646 as if she had never been away. It was obvious that she had been back for some time.
With a racing heart and trembling hands I caught her, removed the elastic rubber ring from her leg and inserted it into the racing clock to record the time. What a surprise – but reporting her arrival to the club-secretary, I was in for another. She was the first bird home. By nightfall only two other birds were back and despite the time I had lost before I found her home, she had beaten both by over an hour. Our pigeons won many races including several championships and the prestigious Derby. But the 1 000km covered that day by 6646 in only eight hours – at an average speed of 125km/hour – was the highlight of my pigeon-racing days. I never raced her again, instead breeding her and in the years that followed, she produced many great racers.
The relationship between humans and doves and pigeons began a long time ago. They were the first birds to be domesticated and have served us since antiquity. According to Genesis, Noah sent out a dove (more likely a pigeon) to scout for dry land after the great flood. In the New Testament a dove is the embodiment of the Holy Spirit. Technically synonymous, the terms dove and pigeon only refer to difference in size. Although the universal symbol of peace is a dove, pigeons are actually birds of war.
Birds of valour
A s far back as 5 000 years ago, Ancient Greek military leaders sent battle reports to base with pigeons. Since then pigeons have been used in many wars around the world. Julius Caesar used them in Gaul. The news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was delivered to London by pigeon and during the Anglo-Boer War, besieged towns communicated by pigeon-mail. By carrying vital messages during both world wars, carrier pigeons saved thousands of lives. They were used extensively in Korea and Vietnam and more recently in the Gulf War and Iraq. During the First World War, pigeons were fitted with cameras to do reconnaissance work. In Vietnam the Americans captured enemy pigeons to guide them to Vietcong hideouts. When infrastructure starts to crumble during wartime, pigeons remain the most foolproof way to stay in touch. Electronic communication can become unreliable – radio messages can be intercepted and scrambled or electronic equipment damaged or destroyed. Although slower, pigeons have proved more reliable and the only option in radio silence. Hundreds of medals have been awarded during the last century for acts of valour by military pigeons. But the price was high and thousands were killed. One of the most famous was the British bird Mary who served for five years and was wounded 21 times, before being hit by a fatal enemy bullet.
Astonishing stories abound, but none are more moving than that of Cher Ami (French for dear friend). He became world famous as one of the First World War’s great heroes. To deliver vital messages he flew a total of 12 dangerous missions. Perhaps his most important was the one flown to save “the lost battalion” on 4 October 1918. A whole battalion of 500 American soldiers, short of ammunition, was trapped against a hillside by an overwhelming German force. On the first day their radio was destroyed, while 300 of them were killed by German artillery. Unless their forces could be informed of their plight, the remaining 200 men faced certain death. All they had left was one pigeon – Cher Ami.
As the little bird, with the vital message in a capsule attached to its leg, rose out of the brush it was met by a hail of German bullets. One of them found its mark. Devastated the doomed men watched as their only hope started to flutter towards the ground, but then, as if by magic the pigeon regained its composure and started to rise. Once beyond the range of enemy fire, the bird circled to determine the direction to its trailer-mounted loft. It was 40km away and far from where it had been when the bird had been taken away by the battalion. Although wounded, Cher Ami located the loft in 25 minutes. As a result 194 men lived to fight another day. After recovery Cher Ami flew his final mission and was shot again, more seriously. When he reached his destination, barely alive, he landed on his back in a pool of blood. He had been hit in the wing and one eye was gone, and he had a gaping hole right through his breast. The leg carrying the message was severed and hung by a piece of skin. But he survived and received France’s highest honour, the Croix de Guerre. He became a national hero in America, where he died a year later. He was preserved by the Smithsonian Institute.
The use of mobile lofts was a common practice during the great wars. During the British desert campaigns in North Africa, pigeons returned successfully to lofts that had been moved almost 100km from where the birds had been dispatched. They even trained them to fly at night. How do they do it? Nobody knows. In an age when we’ve put a man on the moon and explore the secrets of outer space, we still haven’t a clue what makes the birds that have lived in our backyards for thousands of years, tick. Small wonder most major armies still use pigeons.
A personal symbol
My interest in and love for pigeons is not only because I’m fascinated by the unbelievable homing instinct and ability to carry messages. It has its roots in a pair of wild rock pigeons that helped lift my spirit. While entombed in a plaster cocoon in hospital for a year – waiting for an operation to straighten my back after polio – a pair of rock pigeons that couldn’t recognise me as human in my spacesuit, entered my life by nesting on my windowsill. They would even come into my room when the window was ajar. I watched them mate, collect twigs to build a nest and I saw when the female laid her eggs. I watched the babies hatch and grow until the day they flew away – not to carry a message, but to lift and carry my soul away from my confinement, to the wild, wide open spaces and to my home, where my own pigeons were waiting in their loft. – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected] and skype name: abrejsteyn.
PIC The Croix de Guerre and the war hero Cher Ami preserved by the Smithsonian Institute.